Crazy for Oil

Journalist Edwin Black uncovers the industrial conspiracy that made the planet abandon electric vehicles to become addicted to gasoline

By Eduardo Szklarz

Note: This article is translated from the original Portuguese publication, which itself was a translation of the original taped English language interview with Edwin Black. Hence it is retranslation of a translation.

Automobiles powered by electricity and hydrogen cause amazement in car showrooms around the world. Smart, silent, and ecologically sound, they represent the apex of clean energy that promises to free the planet from combustible fossil fuels and, consequently, save us from global warming. The secret of the miracle, claim the car manufacturers, are years and years of research for new technologies.

Truth be told, these developments are not so new. The electric car, for instance, was invented in the 1830s. By the early 20th century, close to 90% of New York taxis were powered by batteries and electric trolleys were common in many places, including Brazil. Fuel cells that were capable of providing energy from hydrogen also existed 150 years ago. Moreover, if these options were available for so long, how did the world end addicted to diesel and gasoline?

American journalist Edwin Black uncovered this story in his book, Internal Combustion. Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, the highest honor in journalism, Black's work shows how the transportation monopoly and oil oligarchs joined forces with Western governments to wipe out clean technologies and to tie humankind to the rack of inhaling exhaust fumes.

How did global transportation become addicted to oil?
Over a hundred years ago, in the late 19th century, all the cars in the United States were electric. But they were not alternative vehicles, but rather a result of a monopoly of a company called Electric Vehicle Company, which operated taxi cabs. Such cars refueled at central stations - so you could pull up your car, go shopping and when you came back the batteries were charged. This monopoly encountered the men making the internal combustion machine [later called the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers, ALAM] and tried to force them to stop, using patent litigation. And finally, after years of litigation, they joined forces and together made a mega-monopoly, to control all bicycles, batteries, electric cars, and the internal combustion cars, and then they jointly decided to abandon their own clean electric technology in favor of the internal combustion machine.

Why did they make this decision?
They thought that the internal combustion machine would be more attractive to men. They said the electrical vehicle was too easy, too clean, too simple, like a ladies car--and they wanted a "muscle car." The plan was to keep the IC machine very expensive, just for rich people. But a Detroit carmaker decided to follow his own instincts. He was Henry Ford, who wanted to proliferate a cheap IC car--the famous Model T. Ford had to cope with years of judicial battles against the cartel to win the right to produce his cars. But when he finally won, he perceived that the country was becoming a dirtier place because of the terrible smoke and filth of the IC machine. And so he and the scientist Thomas Edison joined in a secret project to make an electric Model T, accessible to everybody.

What happened to the Ford and Edison project?
It was subverted by false engineering on the batteries. They were in good condition at Edison's plant in New Jersey, but by the time they got to Detroit, they did not work. Edison complained that people were tampering with the batteries and in 1914, when he was trying to make a battery that was tamper proof, his entire compound burned down in a mysterious flash fire. This came at the onset of World War I, when the IC machine was militarized: it moved tanks, airplanes and boats. Ships powered by oil were much faster than those by coal, for example. The war represented a point of transition to oil.

The Ford and Edison plan was to produce individual cars. How did the internal combustion machine also dominate mass transit?
In 1925, there were 15 billion passengers a year using electric clean trolleys in the United States. Starting in about 1935, General Motors led a massive criminal conspiracy with Mack Truck, Firestone Tires, Standard Oil and Phillips Petroleum to fund a company called National City Lines. These guys would buy up the trolleys, tear up the tracks, pave them over, replace them with motor buses and then burn off the trolleys so they could never be used again. They did it in 40 cities and all over the United States until they were prosecuted by the federal government for criminal conspiracy and found guilty.

Some people criticize the term "conspiracy" used in the book, saying that it was just business.
Al Capone also had 'just business.' I use the word conspiracy because GM was charged with conspiracy, tried for conspiracy and convicted of conspiracy. If I don't use the word conspiracy, I am taking the truth out the history.

In your previous books, like IBM and the Holocaust, Henry Ford was shown as a racist who even received a medal by Nazis. How to portray him now as a hero?
Henry Ford has always been the villain in my books. But in this book he was the hero because I am dealing with an earlier period before World War I. The Ford I wrote about in Internal Combustion was a brilliant man--before becoming one of the greatest anti-Semites in United States history.

At that time, there was no debate about ecology and global warming. Oil was cheaper than electricity and seemed to be abundant. Thinking in this way, would not the decision to use oil be obvious?
That's not true. People have been organized in environmental movements since the 17th century. And they never stopped. Going back to the first days of coal, there was a highly vocal anti-pollution movement among governments and the people, and they never stopped. In the beginning of the 20th century, newspapers showed how oil and grease were contaminating the rivers. Part of the reason Henry Ford wanted to switch us to electricity was to get rid of the environment problems of the car. In 1912, magazines advertised that it was necessary to search for alternative resources due to the oil shortage and the high prices of the gasoline.

What made you write about oil?
I believe that petropolitics is the defining question of our times. We now find ourselves embroiled in more than one war in the Middle East and on the precipice of an expanded world war. Because we crave oil, we are sponsoring and paying the very terrorists that we are fighting. We are giving the money to Iran that, by indirect means, uses the money of the selling to finance the atomic program of North Korea. So Korea can make a No Dong missile and re-export it back to Iran as a Shahab. We also find our climate changing. Our lungs are being destroyed, mile by mile. In all my previous books, I've explored a terrible past hoping to attain a precious future. And in this book, I've explored a terrible future hoping to attain a precious past.

You say the Brazilian ethanol could be an alternative to American corn ethanol that needs oil to be produced. Could't it make people replace food crops and plant sugar cane?
Yes, but that's just a short-term solution. As far as I'm concerned, if all the Brazilian ethanol were shipped to the US, Americans could only drive a car once every two weeks. There isn't enough, but it's enough for you to measurably help us get off of oil. Brazil is getting into hydrogen production by using windmills that would be a more permanent solution, and is leading the world in energy independence. Why? Because after 1973 oil shock, when GM and Ford began giving us Navigators, Escalades, and Hummers, Brazil was getting itself energy independent. The economics is just the tip of the iceberg of this towering accomplishment. See the consequences of the petropolitics: how much are the dead people worth so that we can run lawnmowers on oil. Latin America in general and the Caribbean could be part of the solution.

How would that be possible?
For example, if the impoverished Caribbean islands, that export little more but narcotics and bank fraud, could become fuel exporters. They could supply Florida with sugar cane ethanol. Of course it is a partial solution, but it is available in this moment. We need to get off of oil today, not in 5 or 10 years. So we should take whatever source that is not oil.